IN yet another characteristically flippant response to an important public issue, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley presented the country with the false choice between the archaic 99-year-old Sedition Act and the expression of “disparaging, hurtful and damaging statements...”
Completely dismissed by him was the point made by this newspaper and others about the need to review the law to bring it in line with the values of a modern democracy.
With all-too-familiar sarcasm, he suggested the country might also consider ridding itself of the Trespass and Act and even the law against murder.
It is perhaps too late to expect Dr Rowley to mature out of an instinctive attitude of defensive bristling at every criticism. For, if he weren’t so quick to the quip he would see the issue being raised is not about the age of the law, per se, but about its framing and relevance in a contemporary context. To suggest, as he did, that critics are complaining about “how old the Sedition Act is and it is time to get rid of it” is an outright misrepresentation.
If Dr Rowley were to spend a few minutes reviewing the long list of Cold War-era “Prohibited Publications” attached to the Sedition Act, the obsolete nature of the law would immediately become clear to him. Among them, for example, is Granma, the official voice of the Communist Party of Cuba, with which the Trinidad and Tobago Government enjoys very cordial relations. Today anyone can access Granma online at will.
The point is the Sedition Act is rooted in the power relations of the 1920s—a period of intense challenge to British Crown Colony government by the working poor and unemployed who enjoyed no representation in the legislature, no right to vote, and were largely seen as dangerous to the colonial order established for the protection of British authority and power.
The act was the basis for mass crackdown of popular dissent, which included the dumping of calypso records into the Gulf of Paria as they landed at the Port of Spain docks. Some have been lost to time, but King Radio’s “Sedition Law” has survived and is available online for today’s generation. Similarly available is the Mighty Sparrow’s “Sedition”, which was released in 1972 after the law was amended by the Williams administration to further suppress information and expression after the 1970 Black Power uprising.
A more helpful contribution from Dr Rowley would have been for him to recognise the need for a permanent mechanism for updating our laws before time renders them irrelevant to the point of nonsensical. The point has been made that many of the issues with which the Sedition Act attempts to deal are already better catered for in other legislation while aspects of it have no place in a 21st-century democracy.
The danger of not refreshing the legislative framework is that old laws which appear harmless from lack of use can be suddenly brought to life to criminalise behaviour that is accepted in today’s world, such as free speech, expression and sexual orientation, among others.